Delhi Riots 2020 book controversy: Getting the narrative right

The publishing world was recently rocked when Bloomsbury India withdrew a book titled ‘Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story’. The resulting uproar saw Garuda Prakashan step in as publisher and receive an overwhelming pre-order deluge while Bloomsbury was castigated, with several authors announcing that they would be terminating their business with them over the principle of Freedom of Speech.

Is withdrawing an option?

In this ensuing milieu, it would seem as if we have missed the woods in looking at the trees. This article is an attempt to get our perspective right amidst a world that’s losing its head over matters that need calm contemplation, not knee-jerk reactions. I, for one, have wondered were I a publisher, would I not be allowed to withdraw a book or as publisher and under what circumstances would I do so?

When asked the question, Thomas Abraham, Managing Director of Hachette India clarifies, "It would depend on the specific circumstance and would vary from publisher to publisher. If you look at the history of book withdrawals by publishers (as against bans, which are done by the State) the reasons have been legal, extra-legal (threats to staff and stores), even protests by booksellers who refuse to sell a book, or unwillingness to litigate; and, of course, quality control (an entire batch is defective or has typos). But it’s not really for us to comment because Hachette has not yet withdrawn a book here.”

On the same point, columnist and author of ‘Paper Moon’ Rehana Munir avers, “On moral and journalistic grounds – as course correction, if you will. Ethics and values need to be reintroduced into the discourse on publishing; that a book like ‘Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story’ – with its authors’ dubious record – was commissioned by a prominent publishing house, in the first place, is very disturbing and highly disappointing. The withdrawal was triggered by the outrage of the reading public, expressed online. It’s time for the publishers to decide which kind of outrage they align with. In this case, the withdrawal was a necessary step in rectifying a terrible decision.”

Defining Freedom of Speech

Is publishing all kinds of books, even ones propagating hatred towards somebody, necessarily the true essence of Freedom of Speech? Rehana opines, “A publishing house should, like any person of conscience, propagate views that they endorse. And all prominent publishers (ostensibly) stand for peaceful co-existence between communities, and journalistic integrity. To greenlight a book just for its market appeal – when it stands against the organisation’s value system and professional principles – is unethical. When it comes to poorly researched, incendiary and divisive material, self-censorship is vital. Bloomsbury, in the statement they released while withdrawing the book, themselves said: 'Bloomsbury India strongly supports freedom of speech but also has a deep sense of responsibility towards society.' That’s where the line should be drawn.”

Thomas elaborates that "very simply there are laws and even UN recommendations on curbing defined hate speech. So, hate speech is very different from the right to free speech. Freedom of expression should be available to everyone (whether right wing, left wing or centrist) with no book bans anywhere. It’s of course, best that books align to the philosophy or stance of the publishing house. Yes, it is also possible to publish across both sides of ideological divides—that’s why imprints also have independence. However, whatever the kind of publishing, hate speech cannot be allowed…that is a simple legal principle.”

Tenzin Tsundue, award-winning poet-writer and Tibetan activist, reasons, “It’s the role of artists and writers to express themselves through their art forms. In the Tibetan community, there’s a saying ‘Hundred people will have hundred opinions and one hundred yaks will have two hundred horns.’ This is a folk statement on democracy, how hundreds of people mean hundred opinions. But expressing opinions irresponsibly is also dangerous. Opinions are often biased, not based on reality, and sometimes expressed with malicious intent. And then to say, ‘I’m being denied that opinion and call it anti-free speech activity', that too is wrong.”

What is Freedom?

But freedom isn’t an easily defined concept, nor is it without responsibility. To ride on the back of freedom towards monetary or selfish gains is to negate its essence. Tenzin is clear: “When people use Freedom of Speech for their personal gains or to divide the society, this conduct does not become the principle; it’s being irresponsible. Sometimes, you don’t understand that you speak out of hatred, and it has to be challenged, but that’s forgivable. Then, there’re some people who’re the worst kind of artists, using art forms and storytelling techniques to provoke with the intent to divide. We have to careful of them.”

Rehana affirms, “It is a complex argument, layered by one’s own worldview. I believe that Freedom of Speech, in its true sense, is the freedom to speak truth to power, not the permission to uphold dangerous ideologies and their violent manifestations. In non-fiction writing and public discourse, this refers to speech that upholds ideals like social justice and rational thought, and often challenges hegemonies. The idea becomes more complicated in the realm of fiction, as the furore against Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ proved. Don’t read a book that offends you, is my personal view. But when it comes to journalistic writing, we can all agree that under-researched, unverified and propagandist views are to be rejected, not published.”


India has a tradition of banning books (by government). But is it any different than many other countries? Diverse communities do go overboard in trying to ‘safeguard’ their interests and ‘protect’ their ‘vulnerable’ communities and get the government-of-the-day involved. But is the government censoring books just a ‘safe’ decision to uphold law and order or is there something subversive to their actions? While that is debatable, Rehana feels, “When the argument moves from self-censorship to state censorship, it takes on darker tones. India has been steadily silencing dissenting voices, and that’s a deep blow to free speech. There’s been a strong anti-intellectual wave, with educational institutions being subverted and the loud voices of demagogues taking over. The alternative is the continued engagement of the reading public with the printed word, and all its political implications. It is the voice and vote of the people that ultimately decide which ideas – and books – a nation lives by.”

Tenzin ends the discussion with an interesting idea. “A lot depends on how writers use their craftsmanship in telling the story – being effective and, at the same time, being loved. It really matters how you tell the tale and assert your voice; that truly depends on your art. Some people will make their art political and say I’m being targeted but there’s always this space of being creative and getting the story across. Take Aamir Khan’s films, for that matter; I find them very diplomatic and, at the same time, entertaining. That’s one way of putting your point across non-abrasively and responsibly.”

While the Aamir Khan allegory is interesting, what would be more so is telling our own stories that speak to other people of our joys, pains, and experiences without alienating anybody, including the publishers. When personal story-telling takes precedence over comment making, we would be a truly artistic society.

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